Across languages, ‘rough’ words feature an ‘r’ sound that rolls off the tongue

BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — Human languages vary greatly across the globe, but new research suggests all humans can’t help but use a “trilled /r/” sound when describing “rough” surfaces. Study authors from the University of Birmingham report this linguistic pattern dates back over 6,000 years!

When researchers talk about a “trilled /r/”, they’re referring to the “r” sound rolling off the tongue. For instance, an Italian speaker saying arrivederci. Across languages and cultures, words describing rough surfaces feature this trilled /r/ sound. Examples provided by researchers include the Hungarian durva, the Mongolian barzgar, the Dutch ruw, and the Basque zakarra.

“On their own, any of these patterns would be quite striking, but taken together, they demonstrate a deep-rooted and widespread association between the sounds of speech and our sense of touch,” says study co-author Dr. Mark Dingemanse, an associate professor in language and communication at Radboud University, in a media release. “Our findings reveal that the link between ‘/r/’ and roughness comes naturally to us, making the association more likely to surface and to stick around as words evolve over time.”

Researchers analyzed words used to describe both “smooth” and “rough” surfaces across 322 distinct languages to reach these conclusions. They report the detection of an undeniable connection between the spoken word and sense of touch that has influenced the formation of modern languages.

Rrrr-olling the ‘r’ back in time

In comparison to words referring to smooth surfaces, rough words are four times more likely to use a trilled /r/ sound. Moreover, this “/r/-for-rough” pattern is visible among sensory words in 38 present-day Indo-European languages. Jumping further back into history, study authors can trace this pattern back to the reconstructed roots of Proto-Indo-European. This indicates humans have been using a trilled /r/ sound to describe rough surfaces for over six millennia!

Take English and Hungarian for example. The Hungarian language is nothing like English, but across both languages 60 percent of words used for rough surfaces contain a trilled /r/ sound. English speakers say “rough,” “coarse,” or “gnarled” while Hungarian speakers say “durva,” “érdes,” or “göcsörtös.”

“This is one of the most widespread examples so far of cross-modal iconicity in spoken languages – linking the sounds of speech to the sense of touch,” explains study co-author Dr. Bodo Winter, Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Linguistics at the University of Birmingham. “Such cross-modal associations can play a significant role in shaping the forms of spoken words in natural languages – showing that many aspects of language structure are shaped by the human ability to spot and use perceptual analogies that create iconic links between form and meaning.”

Not all known languages contain an /r/ sound, but roughly 75 percent do, with the trilled /r/ version being the most common variant.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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